Tuesday, November 30 1999, 2:36 PM
Something about the life and violent death of transgendered young man Brandon Teena has caught the imaginations of feminists throughout the 1990s. First, his story was told in a brilliant piece of investigative journalism published in The Village Voice; a few years later, the DiY documentary The Brandon Teena Story explored the hardships of growing up transgendered in Nebraska; and now the gorgeously disturbing indie film Boys Don't Cry has provided audiences with a fictional take on the last few weeks of Teena's short life before he was outed as a "a girl," then raped and murdered by two of his male friends in Falls City, Nebraska.
Even ultra-mainstream "women's media" types wanted a piece of Teena's tale. Diane Keaton, who had been developing her own version of Teena's life for a movie starring Drew Barrymore, was reportedly annoyed beyond belief that Boys Don't Cry had beat her project to the box office.
Given the problems feminism has had with transgendered people in the past, it's curious to find Brandon Teena becoming a sort of underground feminist icon. Certainly his death by hate crime makes him a sympathetic figure for women concerned about sex-motivated assaults, but I think there's more to it than that. Now that female-to-male transsexualism has become more common, women are beginning to realize that gender conversions aren't necessarily anti-feminist.
In the 1970s, feminists tended to shun transsexual women and ignore transsexual men. MtF transsexuals were ousted from women's groups and lesbian organizations because they "weren't real women" and were therefore supposedly unable to appreciate the experience of sexist oppression. Janice Raymond's book The Transsexual Empire, which condemned MtF transsexualism as the ultimate patriarchal co-optation of female identity, characterized the majority of feminist responses to transgendered people until the early 1990s.
What changed? For one thing, transsexuals began talking openly about their experiences. And as the population of transsexuals grew, it became clear that not all transgendered people wished to become stereotypical "men" and "women" as feminists had once feared. Outspoken transsexual activist Kate Bornstein rejoiced in her sexy ambiguity with the book Gender Outlaw (1994), and celebrated "stone butch" Leslie Feinberg embraced female masculinity in Transgender Warriors (1997). Transgendered people no longer looked like dupes of gender, but pioneers in a new culture where gender was optional, not mandatory.
As a feminist who came of age in the early 1990s, I recall vividly when feminism transitioned into a trans-friendly movement. It was around 1993, and I had just written a scathing article for Bad Subjects about why MtF transsexuals were merely "gender slumming" and propping up sexism. I wrote in a vacuum; the only transgendered people I had known were from movies like Paris is Burning. After the article was published, I received a flurry of e-mails for the next several years from outraged MtFs--these women were feminists, lesbians, and riot grrls who were sick of being characterized as "fake" or "privileged" by feminists who knew nothing about their lives. It was clear I had misjudged them. They were on my side, and I hadn't even known it.
And yet the MtF outlaws and gender traitors haven't seduced feminists as much as the FtM heroes and martyrs like Brandon Teena have. Feminist biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook wrote her most recent opus, Suits Me, about the life of FtM jazz musician Billy Tipton, whom she openly idealizes as an early feminist guerrilla. And mainstream 1990s films like Elizabeth propose that becoming "male" is a legitimate form of female empowerment.
Clearly, this trend indicates that feminists are finally willing to forge alliances with transgendered people. We will hear the cry of "fake woman!" less and less as the old guard fades back. But perhaps more radically, the lionization of FtMs among feminists may point the way toward more satisfying relationships between men and women. If a woman can be a man, and a man can be a woman, then perhaps the gender war will someday be over.
The point is that transgendered people seek a world in which gender is a conscious choice. More radical elements of the trans community also speak out for choosing no gender, or both, in order to better express who we want to be. These kinds of freedoms — to mold our bodies at will, to take on roles reserved for the opposite sex, or to opt out of boy/girl dualism entirely — are precisely what many feminists have sought for the last hundred years.
As we enter the next century, it's becoming more and more obvious that what's good for the trannies is good for us.
Annalee Newitz is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.